Kirk, Spock and Sulu Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before — Charon!

A big smile. That was my reaction to seeing the names of Uhura, Spock, Kirk and Sulu on the latest map of Pluto’s jumbo moon Charon. The monikers are still only informal, but new maps of Charon and Pluto submitted to the IAU for approval feature some of our favorite real life and sci-fi characters. Come on — Vader Crater? How cool is that?

Four naming themes were selected for Charon’s features, three of which are based on fiction — Fictional Explorers and Travelers, Fictional Origins and Destinations, Fictional Vessels — and one on Exploration Authors, Artists and Directors. Clicking on each link will bring up a list of proposed names.

This image contains the initial, informal names being used by the New Horizons team for the features and regions on the surface of Pluto. The IAU will still need to give final approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This image contains the initial, informal names being used by the New Horizons team for the features and regions on the surface of Pluto. The IAU will still need to give final approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto’s features, in contrast, are named for both real people and places as well as mythological beings of underworld mythology. Clyde Tombaugh, the dwarf world’s discoverer, takes center stage, with his name appropriately spanning 990 miles (1,590 km) of  frozen terrain nicknamed the “heart of Pluto”. Perhaps the most intriguing region of Pluto, it’s home to what appear to be glaciers of nitrogen ice still mobile at temperatures around –390°F (–234°C).

A close-up slice of Plutonian landscape centered on Tombaugh Regio with informal names waiting for approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
A close-up slice of Plutonian landscape centered on Tombaugh Regio with informal names waiting for approval. Click for a large pdf file. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Pluto, being a physically, historically and emotionally bigger deal than Charon, comes with six themes. I’ve listed a few examples for each:

* Space Missions and Spacecraft – Sputnik, Voyager, Challenger
* Scientists and Engineers 
– Tombaugh, Lowell, Burney (after Venetia Burney, the young girl who named Pluto)
* Historic Explorers – Norgay, Cousteau, Isabella Bird
* Underworld Beings 
– Cthulu, Balrog (from Lord of the Rings), Anubis (Egyptian god associated with the afterlife)
* Underworlds and Underworld Locales 
– Tartarus (Greek “pit of lost souls”), Xibalba (Mayan underworld), Pandemonium (capital of hell in Paradise Lost) 
* Travelers to the Underworld 
– Virgil (tour guide in Dante’s Divine Comedy), Sun Wukong (Monkey king of Chinese mythology), Inanna (ancient Sumerian goddess)

Global map of Pluto's moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Global map of Pluto’s moon Charon pieced together from images taken at different resolutions. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

There’s nothing like a name. Not only do names make sure we’re all talking about the same thing, but they’re how we begin to understand the unique landscapes presented to us by Pluto and its wonderful system of satellites. To keep them all straight, astronomers at the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Planetary System Nomemclature are charged with choosing themes for each planet, asteroid or moon along with individual names for craters, canyons, mountains, volcanoes based on those themes. Astronomers help the group by providing suggested themes and names. In the case of the Pluto system, the public joined in to help the astronomers by participating in the Our Pluto Naming Campaign.

Craters and fissures on Charon photographed during the flyby. Credit: NASA
Craters and fissures (fossae) on Charon photographed during the flyby. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

If you’ve followed naming conventions over the years, you’ve noticed more Latin in use, especially when it comes to basic land forms. I took Latin in college and loved it, but since few of us speak the ancient language anymore, we’re often at a loss to understand what’s being described. What’s a ‘Krun Macula’ or ‘Soyuz Colles’?

Photo of Pluto's nitrogen ice flows in Tombaugh Regio also shows several clumps of
Image I dug out of New Horizon’s LORRI archive shows Pluto’s nitrogen ice flows in Tombaugh Regio also shows several clumps of “colles”. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

The first name is the proper name, so Krun denotes the Mandean god of the underworld. The second name – in Latin – describes the land form. Here’s a list of terms to help you translate the Plutonian and Charonian landscapes (plurals in parentheses):

Regio (Regi): Region
Mons (Montes): Mountain
Collis (Colles): Hill
Chasma (Chasmae): Canyon
Terra (Terrae): Land
Fossa (Fossae): Depression or fissure
Macula (Maculae): Spot
Valles (Valles): Valley
Rupes (Rupes): Cliff
Linea (Linea): Line
Dorsum (Dorsa): Wrinkle ridge
Cavus (Cava): Cavity or pit

Another LORRI photo showing icy Tombaugh Regio butting up against. Credit: NASA
Another LORRI photo showing icy Tombaugh Regio butting up against rugged, mountainous (montes) terrain. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Got it? Great. “Take us out, Mr. Sulu!”

Captain Kirk Tweets the Space Station

 Chris Hadfield’s response to William Shatner got quite a bit of attention on Twitter

You know that you’re living in a very special point in time when you can watch a man who became famous playing a starship captain on television send a tweet to a man who’s actually working in a spaceship orbiting the Earth — and get an amusing response back.

Which is exactly what happened earlier today when William Shatner got a reply from Chris Hadfield, currently part of the Expedition 34 crew aboard the ISS. For many people Shatner was the first starship captain remembered from TV in the late ’60s, and in a couple of months Chris Hadfield will become the first Canadian astronaut to assume command of the International Space Station.

(Shatner, by the way, is also from Canada. Hmm…maybe there’s something more going on here…)